The OI Interview: Springfield Mayor Ken McClure Part Two

This interview initially aired on KWTO’s Morningline, now hosted by OI’s editor Jason Wert from 6-8 a.m. on 560 AM and 93.3 FM. Part one can be read here.

OI: During the State of the City speech, you spoke about Ralph Manley. Wouldn’t you say he was somebody that embodied the good of Springfield?

McClure: He was known for that and his favorite phrase was “I am so excited” and he always saw the good in a situation. I had so much respect for Ralph. I knew him when he was on Council and met him before he was on Council.

He was the epitome of a good City Council member. The best that I’ve seen.

OI: Let’s talk about a controversial area you’ve been dealing with lately, historic designations of buildings. We had the Galloway situations where the neighborhood association filed for status without telling the landowner who was against it, and we had the filing on the former Katz Drug where notices were sent to the landowner who did not respond, and both were downvoted. It drew criticism for council, especially on the Galloway issue.

It seemed to come down to involvement of the owner. I know you were concerned about property rights. So first, where do you stand on this issues, and secondly, do you see a time where you might have to give a designation over a landowner’s objection?

McClure: First, the Landmarks Board, which is appointed by City Council, it’s an advisory board. It makes recommendations. Its findings are not binding.

Since 1998, there have been seven historic sites designated, each with the recommendation of the Landmarks Board. In each case, the landowner either initiated the process or concurred with it.

The situation in Galloway was so unusual. In the first place, the landowner had not been notified that an application had been filed for a historic site. The property owner found out about the application through the city staff.

Secondly, the property owner disagreed with it. So that set it apart from the previous seven and we have not done many of these over 21 years. Just seven. And that was an immediate red flag.

OI: Now, for the sake of full disclosure, we do have to say that the neighborhood association was not required under city code to notify the landowner ahead of making the application.

McClure: Right. There is nothing that says the property owner has to be notified or concur. However, precedent has shown us that was the case.

Where I had an issue with the Galloway situation was that the property owner had not been notified in advance that there had been an application filed for designation of a historic site. To me, that was just a basic step that was needed to be taken.

For him to find out from city staff, missed a big opportunity for that. If I had an observation to make, I think there had been room for negotiation and the Landmark Board would have been the ideal forum for that.

Council has really no choice once it comes before you, you can’t table it, you can’t amend it, you have to vote it up or down and that’s the situation where we found ourselves.

OI: And do you think that’s something in the city code that should be changed?

McClure: I do think that should be changed I do think we should have the ability to have some negotiations and discussion back and forth. Clearly the Landmarks Board needs to have a role.

Now, to answer your question about whether or not there would be times that owner consent would not be necessary, and I think there might be those times. You can think of some times where there might be an obstructionist landowner, that type of thing. You have to treat that very, very carefully.

The situation with the old Katz Drug Store was that the owner was out of state and had not received anything back from the property owner. That’s a little different situation. But the Landmarks representative said ‘vote it down, let’s talk.”

That’s what we want to do. What was clear to me, and clear to everyone on Council, we have to re-work what the requirements are. Clearly, it has to involve landowner notification in advance. Whether it goes beyond that to require landowner consent, we need to talk about. You don’t want an obstructionist landowner standing in the way of something but you also need to respect property rights.

So it’s a very delicate balance and I want to be respectful of that.

I want to be able as Council to say ‘let’s rework this, so we’ve got a Landmarks Board knowing exactly what the guidelines are that we’re following.’

OI: So be clear, the Council wants to preserve history.

McClure: Everyone does. I have two degrees in history. I write history. I’m as tuned in on that as anyone is, but you have to balance that with the rights of the property owner. And we had some precedent over the last 20 years.

It was a difficult question but the vote for me was ultimately easy. I came down on the fact you at least owe the property owner courtesy of notification before you file.

OI: The Council tabled measures on payday loans, sending the issue back to the Committee of the Whole, which is basically the Council. I know this is a complex issues because things related to interest rates and other points have to come down from Jefferson City, so there’s not as much the city can do.

What are you hoping to accomplish over the next months as you look at these ordinances?

McClure: Well, it’s a very good question. As you noted, the high interest rates that go with what we call these payday loans, installment loans, car title loans, are controlled by the state. There’s nothing the city can do that will impact what the interest rates are.

We are one of a high number of states that do not have caps on them [for interest rates.] We have been pushing for years as part of our legislative package for the state legislature to change that. They haven’t. So there’s very little the city can do.

There’s a great project going on right now called the Northwest Project. Northwest Springfield. That is doing some good work in that but they’re limited in what they can do.

If we try to address the problem without education, it’s not going to be effective. Many times people go in and they have to pay their utilities or car payment or medication, something like that. At that point, all they want is the cash, and then they get into that trap and it’s almost impossible to get out.

Trying to deal with what we can is a challenge. Everyone on Council, without exception, is appalled with what we have to see and what we have to deal with on these high interest rates.

There’s not a consensus yet on how best the city’s role can be defined, and that’s what we’re hoping to work through in the Committee of the Whole. My personal goal, I know that it’s shared by a majority of the Council, is to get as many of those interested in the issue involved and talking about the issue, at least to where people have a good sense of what they’re getting into and hopefully have some kind of alternative.

That’s what I’d like to see personally but that’s hard to do. Our hands are tied in terms of what we can do with the interest rates. That said, what can we do absent that to make this a more palatable situation and hopefully keep people getting trapped in that death trap spiral. Once they get caught in that, it’s almost impossible to get out.

OI: Other cities in the state have taken action, have you taken a look at what they have done in this situation?

McClure: Well, the two cities that are most cited are St. Louis, which put a business tax on of $5,000 for these facilities. Kansas City put on a lower one of $1,500 and it’s brought mixed results as far as I can tell. I can’t tell that it’s had any impact on the interest rates charged.

Actually, even though on average in our state it comes out at 462%, they’re allowed by statute to go as high as 1200%. So as bad as it is now, it’s not as bad as it could be.

OI: And to be clear, there’s nothing illegal about it.

McClure: There’s nothing illegal about it! They are operating legally as business in our community and across the state.

So what do you do to make sure people have other options but even that is difficult. How do these payday loans work? You don’t need a credit check, you just go in and get it. But it’s hard to get out of.

Trying to work with that I think is the ultimate goal that Council has and we’re wrestling with that. There’s no consensus on how best to proceed other than we know we have to proceed.

It’s a matter of finding out everything, making sure all the involved entities have input, and ultimately get something that works to give people other options or give them something to get out of what they get into.

I’ll be honest, I had two meetings yesterday on it just trying to learn. We’re collecting data and I hope it will help us as we try to move on this. We have to work on finding what the consensus approach is on this.

OI: In the Community Survey is says only 11% of residents or members of their household attended a Council meeting last year. Only 17% either called, wrote or spoke to a City Council member. As the Mayor, do you find it frustration to have that low level of citizen interaction.

McClure: Sure. You try to make Council meeting as accessible as possible. They’re covered, you cover them, they’re covered live. We hear from people on email and some are very, very helpful even if they disagree, some are just hateful. So you have to distinguish between that.

But you always want people to know what’s going on, you always want input, you always want interaction with the community. We on the Council do it in a variety of ways, I go all over town as so my Council colleagues. I actually get more interaction at public events, something like a ribbon cutting or proclamation, where someone will pull me said and say “let me ask you a question…”

And on some hot button issues you get a lot [of emails] and sometimes you get what we call ‘standard mail’, it’s word-for-word the same. People will send in the same comment, you know they didn’t write it, and many times they don’t live in the city. I just disregard those. Something that’s not original, I don’t pay attention to that.

If someone writes in and says “I have this complaint, that complaint” or someone or “thank you for doing this thing.” That’s what you appreciate even if the disagree with you because they’re taking the time to notify you.

OI: Is there a way that someone can approach you that will get your attention over others?

McClure: Well, certainly, if someone will take the time to come to a City Council meeting and then take the additional step of signing up to speak on an issue pro or con, or even just in the public comment section and speak for five minutes on a topic of their choosing.

First, they took the trouble to come. Second, they have something to say you owe them the courtesy of listening and if they have a valid concern you do what you can do to help. But I have a lot of respect for people who show up at Council meetings, especially those that will comment on a particular issue, pro or con. Our job is to listen, weigh their opinions, and give them every courtesy and respect that they deserve.